No regrets for eliminated Wolfpack
Despite strong starting pitcher Rodon, NC State shut out 7-0
OMAHA, Neb. -- The final score was 7-0, but for North Carolina its victory against NC State in Game 10 of the College World Series on Thursday night was much more than merely advancing to play another game. It was a bounce-back win against a nemesis who four days earlier had racked up eight strikeouts in a complete-game 8-1 victory that dropped the Tar Heels into the losers’ bracket.
Entering the fourth inning on Thursday, UNC was 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position against NC State lefthander Carlos Rodon in the CWS. By the time the frame ended, the Tar Heels were 0-for-11, but more importantly, North Carolina held a 1-0 lead in its elimination game.
Facing a left-handed starting pitcher for the sixth consecutive game -- and the 10th in its past 13 games, dating to the ACC tournament -- UNC was familiar with Wolfpack sophomore Rodon. Entering Thursday, he was 2-0 with 32 strikeouts in 25.2 innings against the Tar Heels in three appearances this season.
He also had dominated North Carolina on Sunday in Game 3 of the CWS, tossing his fourth complete-game victory of the year. Rodon opened the game with a walk to Chaz Frank before retiring 14 consecutive batters, six via strikeout. He yielded UNC’s first hit in the fifth inning to Brian Holberton.
“Carlos told me [Wednesday] he was ready to go if I needed him,” said NC State head coach Elliott Avent, who originally had planned to start Brad Stone. “I was making sure [Rodon] was thinking with his head instead of his heart. … That’s the thing most people will not realize about Carlos Rodon, but they will one day: He’s Bob Gibson as a pitcher and Pete Rose as a position player. He’s no different than the kid who wants to win.”
The decision to start Rodon did not surprise UNC.
“It’s hard when you’re in elimination game to not put [Rodon] out there,” North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. “I get the rest and all that, 108 pitches [on Sunday], strong as a bull. I know it was a tough decision for [Avent] and his staff. You don't want any regrets leaving here and I think they probably would have had some if they hadn't pitched him.”
Rodon seemingly had the Tar Heels’ number, so on three days’ rest he again was called on to face North Carolina with the season on the line in Game 10. For UNC, the mentality was “it is what it is.” Thursday was a different day and the Tar Heels had a different outcome in mind.
Nonetheless, Rodon cruised through the first three innings, striking out six and continuing to thwart North Carolina by stranding runners in scoring position in the first and third frames.
Then came the fateful fourth inning, which was jumpstarted by UNC’s Colin Moran, who stroked an 0-1 pitch for a single to center field. Holberton’s sacrifice bunt was fielded by Rodon, who wheeled to try to nab Moran at second base -- maybe even start a double play -- but the throw skipped past the bag and both runners were safe. Rodon then walked Cody Stubbs.
“Those things happen,” Rodon said. “Just a bunt -- pretty easy double play. That happens to any baseball player.”
If the Tar Heels were going to break through, it’s hard to imagine a better situation than bases loaded and none out.
UNC’s Skye Bolt hacked at the first pitch and grounded to NC State third baseman Grant Clyde, who fielded the hopper and fired to catcher Brett Austin for the force out. With the fielder’s choice, the North Carolina 0-fer with runners in scoring position against Rodon reached double digits.
Seven-hole hitter Michael Russell took ball one before Rodon evened the count. A fly ball to right field -- but was it deep enough for Holberton to score on, or shallow enough for NC State’s Jake Fincher to have a chance to make a play at the plate?
It was both, as Holberton raced for the plate, Fincher fired a BB to Austin. Ninety feet later it was bang-bang -- and home plate umpire Joe Burleson spread his arms. Holberton was safe -- just by a hair on Rameses’ chinny-chin-chin -- and North Carolina had a lead it would never relinquish. Mike Zolk flied out to end the inning and despite falling to 0-for-11 with RISP against Rodon, UNC had done the damage.
“Obviously, maybe [Holberton’s] hand got in,” Avent said of the play at the plate. “The ball just beat him by so much that maybe we didn’t block the plate good enough.
“But with the rules, it says you can’t block home plate. So if you can’t block home plate and the guy can get his hand in, then I’ve got to make a decision. I told Brett Austin make sure you always block home plate and we’ll talk about the rule later.”
The Tar Heels tacked on another run in the fifth, which proved to be Rodon’s final inning. Moran singled to score Park Jordan, UNC’s first hit in 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position against Rodon (10-3). From the fifth inning on, North Carolina went 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position, including 2-for-2 in the eighth inning when the Tar Heels scored four times.
Meanwhile, North Carolina starting pitcher Hobbs Johnson (5-1) was rolling. He scattered five hits across a career-high 8.1 innings, walked two and struck out six. The last time NC State was shut out was May 26, 2012, also against UNC, a span of 76 games.
“[Thursday night] was all about Hobbs,” Fox said, “just an incredible performance. We really needed it. And [it] gave us exactly what we needed. A good start and got a lead and we were able to add on to it later on, so a big win for us. Obviously we're happy to still be playing.
“Hobbs has done that against a lot of other teams this year as well,” he said. “There’s some deception in his fastball. He hides the ball a little bit and it does, I think, get on you a little bit quicker, and he’s able to pitch right at the top of the strike zone. And the key with Hobbs [Thursday night] was just good command, a lot of first-pitch strikes and only two walks. It’s the best he's thrown but he's thrown really well for us all year.”
NC State is the fourth team eliminated from the CWS, while the Tar Heels advance to face UCLA at 8 p.m. ET Friday.
On Thursday, whether it was facing Rodon for the second time in four days, or finally breaking through with runners in scoring position, the “it is what it is” mentality served North Carolina well.